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Mall traffic is still a problem

Despite some big crowds, more people are staying home to shop this season, says RB’s The Bottom Line.
Photograph by Jonathan Maze

The Bottom Line

I went shopping on both Thanksgiving and Black Friday because I can’t think of any better way to spend a holiday than to stand in long lines and elbow through massive crowds to save $20 on a laptop.

And I was hardly alone, at least in my corner of the world. Thousands of people were in line at the Mall of America in Minneapolis when it opened early Friday morning. Later that day, restaurants in the popular shopping destination were treated to a steady dose of long lines.

A waiter at one of them told me that he’d never seen the mall's parking garages so full in his five years there.

Elsewhere, there were plenty of crowds at various stores from Connecticut to Florida to North Carolina on Thanksgiving evening and the following Friday.

All of this anecdotal evidence, however, hides a continuing reality that doesn’t appear to be changing even with a strong economy: More people are staying in while they shop. That can be tough for restaurants that have grown up around these areas.

Retail foot traffic on Thanksgiving and Black Friday declined a combined 1% from 2017, according to the retail tracking service ShopperTrak. On Black Friday—when consumers are far more likely to actually dine out at a restaurant—foot traffic declined 1.7%.

To be sure, Black Friday remains popular, as the crowds proved, and Thanksgiving Day deals are proving to be too much of a lure to keep people at home sleeping off their turkey. But the growing economy is proving to be more of a boon to online commerce than it is to brick-and-mortar retail.

Online sales on Black Friday hit a record $6.22 billion, according to CNBC, and Thanksgiving Day online shopping rose 28%.

Indeed, just days before Thanksgiving, the mall-heavy retailer Gap said it planned to close hundreds of stores in malls “quickly.”

Black Friday, and the holiday shopping season, isn’t nearly as big for restaurants as it is for retailers—and it’s not as big for retailers as some say.

But the end of the year is still an important profit center for many companies.

According to small business financial services and data firm Kabbage, 47% of restaurants and bars say that the fourth quarter is the most profitable period of the year, following only online and offline retailers.

Between holiday parties hosted at restaurants and spikes in shopping, “going out to eat is a common activity this time of year,” said Scott Rosenberg, CFO of Kabbage.

And the industry has adjusted to the gradual decline in mall traffic. Many companies have taken advantage of the decline to get good deals on mall spaces, for instance. Last week I wrote about Revolution Hall, a new mall-based food hall that just opened in the Rosedale Center mall, 20 minutes away from the Mall of America.

And mall stalwarts such as Auntie Anne’s are finding other locations.

But many restaurant companies have also closed themselves. Monthly traffic has averaged a 4.9% decline at casual- and fine-dining restaurants since last December, according to Technomic. And traffic at bar and grill and sports bar chains, where concepts such as Ruby Tuesday, TGI Fridays and others have struggled or closed locations, fell 10.5% in October.

Many traditional bar and grill chains rose up around malls and shopping areas, having emerged with the shopping culture in the 1980s and 1990s. As that culture has diminished, many of them have struggled.

But the overarching theme is the same with restaurants as it is with retailers. More of our culture is taking place online. And that means fewer people are out and about shopping or working or visiting with friends.

It’s why delivery and takeout have become increasingly important, even to traditional dine-in concepts. And it’s a trend that won’t end anytime soon.

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